Shyness in the Classroom . . .
A Page For Educational Professionals




Welcome to the Shyness in the Classroom page of the Shake Your Shyness website. I envision this page as being a constant work in progress and, with your help, my hope is that it will come to serve as an clearinghouse for information about shyness that can be of use to educational professionals. When completed this page will contain an overview of shyness as it pertains to children, tips for working with shy children in the classroom, a forum for discussing issues and sharing ideas, as well as links to additional resources on the internet. While the page is not nearly complete, I felt it was far enough along to be help, so I decided to publish it and expand it's contents as time permits. I welcome whatever input you might have to help me make it better meet your needs (email me).

Shyness in the Classroom . . . An Overview of the Issues

Definitions--What is shyness? Because shyness is a lay term, it has no single standardized definition. And while existing definitions differ from expert to expert, I think you will find that most definitions incorporate elements of the following:

Shyness is the act of feeling uncomfortable in social situations in ways that
interfere with our ability to enjoy ourselves, to perform at the level we're capable of or,
that cause us to avoid social situations altogether.  

Setting the stage for helping by changing the way we think about shyness. Notice that I define shyness as an " act of feeling" uncomfortable-- not as a personality trait or temperament, but as a "feeling." In this regard, my definition may differ somewhat from others--and it is an important difference.

While I do think there is such a thing as a " shy person " (i.e. a person who " feels " shy much of the time), I've found it both more accurate and more helpful to think of shyness as a feeling with varying degrees of frequency and intensity that comes and goes depending on circumstances.

Let me explain what I mean with an example. Let's take a totally different feeling— hunger, for instance—and compare it to shyness. We feel hunger when the absence of food in our stomach triggers a reaction that tells us it's time to eat. Similarly, we feel shy when a threatening social situation triggers an anxious reaction that tells us it's time to fight or flee (i.e., the Fight or Flight Reaction). When we satisfy our stomachs with food, our hunger goes away, just as when we satisfy our fear with safety, our anxiousness goes away. The hungrier we are, the more food it may take to satisfy us, and the more frightened we are, the more emotional reassurance we may require.

When we don't address our body's need for food in a responsible way, we can develop an eating disorder, just as when we don't address our body's need for social safety in a way that works, we can learn to feel shy. Repeated over time, these shy feelings can become a habit of sorts—and voilá we have what most people would think of as a shy person.

But isn't this just a bunch of semantics? Aren't we just splitting hairs?

The answer is "no"—at least not in the eyes of a shy person.

You see, shyness viewed as a " feeling" is difficult, but manageable, whereas shyness viewed as an " enduring personality trait " can be overwhelming. Had I, as a shy child, believed that I had a shy " personality," I might easily have gotten discouraged and given up. But because I viewed my shyness as a feeling, as something I could do something about, I always felt there was hope. I knew that if I could just figure out what to do to fit in and muster the courage to do it, everything would be OK--and it was.

My motivation for sharing this here with you, is to help you understand how important it is for shy children to know that they're OK---that there's hope and a chance that they can fit in---that just because they feel shy at one point in time, doesn't mean that they have to feel shy in all places at all times for the rest of their lives.

As this page develops, I hope to provide you with information that can help you distinguish between the different kinds of shyness children feel—i.e., shyness born out of disappointing experiences, shyness born out of a biological predisposition to anxiety, shyness born out of learning disabilities that make it hard for them to read social cues and more . . .

But it the meantime, please know that it is the feelings that children have in the here and now that are most important to them—that by helping children through those feelings you are giving them the gift of the hope that they can belong,

How can you help? For starters, know that you really can help—small things make a huge difference in a shy child's world. The simple act of recognizing and understanding a child's feelings can create an environment that feels safe---or at least sa fer —to a shy child.

I can still remember that day in Calculus class in high school when I finally mustered the courage to raise my hand to answer a question in the mostly male classroom with the male teacher who had to have been able to see my hand exposed in the air as plain as day, but who chose to call on someone else. I can safely say that his response did little to help me overcome shyness—particularly when it happened more than once. He just didn't know how badly I needed for him to call on me.

Now my memories are of my own mistakes—of teaching classes to people who, much like myself, struggle with shyness and, like my Calculus teacher, inadvertently making the wrong move— saying the wrong thing or overlooking a valiant effort. Doing the right thing is harder than it looks, even when you're the expert.

Small things do make difference in a shy child's life—a compliment, acknowledgement of an effort, structured exercises that help them interact can make all a difference in a shy child's ability to participate in your classroom.

What follows are tips, classroom exercises and links to additional resources on the internet. Because I would like this site to serve as a forum for educational professionals and I'm still learning how to access the software, please email your questions, thoughts, tips, etc to me and I will do my best to review and post them as time permits. Your input and feedback are critical to the success of this site and will be greatly appreciated.

Tips For Working With Shy Children

  1. Normalize shyness and depict it in a positive light. "Normalizing" shyness should be pretty easy. Given that nearly fifty percent of the adult population in the United States is believed to be shy, shyness really is normal.

The problem is that most people are embarrassed by their shyness and keep it to themselves. As a result they go through life thinking they're different from everyone one else when nothing could be farther from the truth. As educational professionals, you are in a position to dispel this notion by showing your students just how "normal" shyness is and that shyness doesn't have to hold them back.

  • Compare shy children to other shy children who have grown up to be successful adults: "You're just like Abraham Lincoln. Did you know that he was afraid of girls, too?" or "I guess you're going to be a great movie star like Tom Hanks. He used to be really shy!" I can't tell you how reassuring it was for me to learn the number of shy children who grew up to be uncommonly successful adults. Try asking your fellow teachers how many of them used to be shy. You may be surprised by the results. It you used to be shy, you may want to share that with your shy students as well.(Check out the Shy Celebrities page of this website for more information).
  • Be sure to mention great leaders, inventors, entertainers and politicians who were once shy when reviewing their lives.
  • Portray shy people as more courageous than the average person, because it takes more energy for them to do the same things that an outgoing person would do.
  1. Make regular contact. It's easy for shy children to fall through the cracks and the farther they fall, the harder it is for them to accept attention when it's given. Making contact with shy children on a regular basis—daily, if possible—helps keep shy children connected. You don't have to do much—a comment, question or smile can make a big difference.   The key is to make contact in a way that doesn't single shy children out as being different.

  1. Give shy children a job to do.   Much like shy adults, shy children do better when they have something to do that allows them to: 1) feel like they're making a contribution and 2) have a reason to interact with others—in this case, their fellow students. The trick is to match the level of social interaction of a task with the tolerance level of each child. Some children thrive with no more than a little push. These children often lack the confidence to get started or, in some cases, simply don't know how to approach other children. Any assignment that helps them break the ice may be all they need to get the social ball rolling. Other children require much more support. They are terrified just to be in the classroom and you will need to proceed more cautiously. For these children something as simple as a brief encounter with their teacher is enough to send them reeling.

I've listed some tasks below in order of increasing difficulty—although sometimes it's hard to tell what will or won't be difficult for a particular child.

  • Closing the classroom door when the bell rings
  • Straightening up the room after class
  • ]Passing out/collecting papers
  • Working in a small group on a teacher assigned project
  • Taking a survey of other students during down times (e.g., recess, study periods, etc) requiring that shy children go up to and interact with other children in a teacher assigned role.

to your regular classroom regimen.

As you can see, the first task requires little or no interaction with anything but the door. This is quite deliberate as it allows a child to participate in class without having to interact with other children or the teacher—but even this task may be too threatening for particularly anxious children. At the other extreme, is the last task which requires that a child go up to his/her fellow classmates and initiate a question and answer period. As I'm sure you know, it's best to come up with tasks that fit into your normal classroom routine and can be maintained with little or no disruption

One word of caution before you begin—assigning tasks to shy children works best when you also assign tasks to other children who are not shy. Shy children may be uncomfortable, but they're rarely dumb. They can usually spot a job that was created just for them and so can their classmates—further drawing attention to the shy child's self-consciousness and classroom agony. Properly executed, however, tasks such as these can make a lifetime of difference in a shy child's world.

  1. Comment on their successes and post their work.    Most shy children crave attention, but dread it at the same time.; They want to feel special, but have difficulty being in the limelight. Posting their work in prominent places in the classroom can be a big boost to their self-esteem, just as commenting on their accomplishments in front of the class can make a huge difference.

Compliments, however, must be given with care. When dealing with children that shun attention, it's best to use a hit and run approach to compliments—that is, to offer a compliment, then immediately move to another subject.& Don't give them the opportunity to struggle or even think about what they need to do to respond or, if the compliment was made in front of the entire class, don't leave enough time for the class to turn and look at the student. Simply move forward knowing that a good deed has been done.


A student comes up to your desk to ask a question. You notice they have an interesting item of clothing or their hair looks particularly nice. Simply compliment them and move on to the business at hand.

"Great sweatshirt. I really like it. So what can I do for you?"

When dealing with very shy children, it may be best to avoid eye contact until you sense that the child is able to respond comfortably. This may take anywhere from one to several encounters. And by all means, don't wait for a response to your compliment! If they give one, fine. Go with it. But don't wait. That defeats the purpose of this exercise.

Finally, never compliment children about things you don't mean. It only confuses them in the long run.

  1. Help Children Learn To Initiate Contact With Others.    Walking up to a stranger or even a friend can be difficult for an adult, ut for a shy child, it's nothing less than torture. Most shy children dream of being able to run up to a group of kids on the playground and join in, but they literally don't know how. Instead, they wait for someone to ask them to play or pretend that they're not interested.

Anything you do to promote a shy child's ability to initiate contact with others can make a huge difference in their life. For starters, I've linked you to the Chit-Chat page of the website (a resource you will want to become more familiar with over time). This particular page offers simple suggestions kids can use to start conversations on the bus or standing in the school lunch line.

Additionally, I've included some exercises you might try in the classroom ( Classroom Exercises). As you will see, there's nothing particularly special about them. What's more, I'm confident that, armed with an increasingly better understanding of shyness and the principles that help children overcome it, you will come up with exercises that are better suited to your particular classroom on your own. I include these exercises largely, because we need to start somewhere and, because things as simple as these can make a huge difference in a shy child's life.

I will be adding more tips and references to this section as time permits. I would like to include your ideas as much as possible. Please email your suggestions. I thank you in advance for your help.

  1. Educate Parents.   One of the most important the things educational professionals can do to help shy children is to educate parents about the skills shy children can practice at home that are directly applicable to the classroom situation. I've listed a few below just to get you started.

  • Playing games where family members raise their hand to speak.
  • Having children read stories to their parents instead of parents reading the stories to them.
  • Encouraging children to speak for themselves whenever possible (i.e., when ordering at restaurants, around guests)
  • Putting on plays and skits for other family members at home on a regular basis.
  • Practicing social skills.

For more information on things parents can do to help shy children, see the Parenting The Shy Child page of this website.

  1. Reward Small Improvements Most shy children blossom when challenges are broken into manageable chunks. It's their anxiety not their intelligence that gets in their way of their learning. When we break things down into small enough chunks that allow shy children to succeed most of the time and fail some of the time (making it clear that failing is a part of learning) many children learn to gradually overcoming their fears.

  2. Keep an eye out for teasing.   We all know that shy children are more likely to be teased than their more outgoing counterparts. But kids are smart. They know better than to tease and bully another child in front of adults. It should come as no surprise that educational professionals are often the last to know what's going on. What is surprising is that parents and even counselors of children who are being teased are often unaware. While some children are comfortable enough to tell all, scared and/or embarrassed by what's happening to them, many children keep their suffering to themselves---forcing the adults in their lives to pry it out of them after they become increasingly sullen at prospect of going school.

Given that much of the teasing is likely to occur outside of your view, it is unrealistic to think that you will always be able to intervene. All that I ask is that you keep an eye out for the possibility that a shy child is being teased and that you do whatever you can to help should you discover that there is a problem. Many of the shy adults I in my practice, still describe the emotional scars from their youth as is they were reliving the teasing today.

While I don't know of a sure fire solution to the problem of teasing, I did stumble on one book that I think is particularly helpful.  Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal With Teasing, Conflict, and Other Hard Times by Scott Cooper (see Recommended Readings) provides parents with specific examples of things they can do to help their children become less attractive to bullies.

Because teasing is such a difficult topic and because I certainly don't have all the answers, I'd like to enlist your help gathering tips to share with parents and other educational professionals so that we can begin to del with teasing more constructively. Please email your suggestions to me at Teasing Tips so that I can collate them and pass them on to others.

Classroom Exercises

The key to developing exercises to help shy children is to choose activities that provide a structure for shy children to interact with other children without having to worry about what it is they are supposed to do. Exercises best suited for this this tend to 1) teach simple skills that are easy for children to learn, 2) involve small groups that promote rapid turn taking, 3) require that everyone take turns playing each role, and 4) allow more than one child to be active at a time. Note--shy children become particularly vulnerable to anxiety while waiting to take their turn.

  1. What do we have in common?

  2. I've listed three exercises below to give you a feel for the kinds of exercises that tend to benefit shy children while having merit for the classroom as a whole. However, some shy children--- particularly those struggling with Social Phobia---may even find these exercises too threatening and you may need to start with something smaller.

Purpose:        To help students learn to recognize things they have in common.

Instructions:    Pair up students and give them the job of finding out what they have in common. When working with younger children, it's a good idea to give them some ground rules (e.g., only positive comments are allowed) as well as potential topic areas to explore (e.g., favorite food, hobbies, places they've been, etc) or they're likely to come up with typical kid-like responses like "We both think Suzie's got a fat face" or "We both like to squish bugs with our teeth."   Creative responses aside, this exercise is particularly useful because it challenges children (shy and non-shy alike) to see what they have in common and is the precursor to more adult versions of small talk.

  1. Chiefs & Indians . . .

Purpose: Create a situation where shy children are challenged to participate in both a leadership and a follower role.  

Instructions: Assign students to groups of two and then pick an age appropriate task or game (e.g., building a fort, playing pickup sticks, painting a picture, planning a trip, etc). Assign one person in the group the role of Chief and the other person as the role of Indian. The Chief's job will be to be a leader/participant while motivating the Indian. The Indian's job will be to be a constructive follower. Periodically blow a whistle, beat on a drum or whatever moves you to signal that it's time for group members to change roles (i.e., the Indian becomes the Chief and the Chief becomes the Indian). Repeat as often as time allows, having children change partners from time to time. Note  -  when asking children to change partners, make sure you have a rule for how they will be assigned as shy children tend to be left behind---obviously defeating the purpose of the exercise.

  1. Introduction Time . . .

Purpose:     To provide shy students with the opportunity to feel more comfortable with their fellow students while learning social skills that benefit everyone.

Instructions:    Set aside a social skills training time as part of your monthly and/or weekly classroom routine. Teach the entire class how to shake hands, introduce themselves to others and introduce other students to each other. The key is to structure your lessons in a way that everyone has a task to do---that way shy children can't h avoid participating. Let me give you some examples.

  • Introducing yourself to a group . . . Break the class into groups of four to six students and have each student introduce him/herself to the other students as follows:

  • Choose one student in each group to start. Have that student introduce him/herself to everyone else in the group as follows: Say "Hi, my name is _____," extend his/her hand to each person in the group one by one and shake hands. Meanwhile everyone everyone else in the group, will respond, "I'm ______," followed by a reciprocal handshake. Rotate around the group until each student has had a chance to introduce him/herself to everyone else.

  • Introducing others. . . Assign each student to a buddy by randomly breaking up students into groups of two (note one group may need to have three buddies if there is an odd number of students in the classroom). Make larger groups of four to six students by combining groups of buddies. Next, have each buddy introduce his/her buddy to the rest of the group.

  • "John, I'd like you to meet Harry." John's buddy points to Harry and Harry and John extend their hands and shake hands while Harry says "Nice to meet you." "I'd like you to meet Susan." Buddy points to Susan. Susan says "It's a pleasure to meet you." and they both shake hands and so on until everyone has been introduced to John.

    The process is then repeated until each person has had an opportunity to introduce his/buddy to the entire group.

Helpful Websites . . .

I myself am disappointed in this section, but I hope to improve it over time. The problem is, there presently aren't very many good sites addressing shyness in the classroom on the internet. As with other aspects of this site, I welcome your input regarding sites you would recommend. In the meantime, you may want to check out some of the sites listed on the Shyness in Children & Teens section of the Shyness Websites page of this website. I'm not sure who sponsors this site, but it's packed with links to references on a problem that can be particularly devastating for shy children. Those of you have the patience to sort through the vast array links presented here, may be alarmed to learn about the magnitude and severity of bullying that takes place in the schools.

Education World Overall a wonderful site full of teaching resources from lesson plans and subject resources to message boards and an international school directory. They even have a career center. I've linked you to a page that lists ten simple classroom games, at least three of which are likely to help you promote class participation by shy children. These include Silence, Piecing the Puzzle and Four Corners. Games to avoid include games in which children have the opportunity to pick other children to involve in the game, like Seven Corners and Password .

Helping shy pupils break out of shelll Recognizing the importance of helping young children build confidence early in their educational experience, this British program strives to help shy and quiet children feel more comfortable in classroom settings.

Helping Young Children Overcome Shyness by John Malouff   This article offers a nice reminder of small common sense things we can do that make a big difference in the lives of shy children.

How Can Teachers Help Shy Students? Interview with shyness expert, Lynn Kelly, emphasizing tips for helping shy children become more communicative in the classroom.

LDOnline  A great find, Learning Disabilities Online provides a wealth of information on learning disabilities of all kinds. I've linked you to the Social Skills page of the site and while, technically, being shy is not considered a learning disability, it clearly sets children apart from their peers and makes learning that much harder. Besides, children with learning disabilities often become shy as they struggle with embarrassment over their failures in class. I've also linked you to a sample of what dyslexic children see when they struggle to read (dyslexia sample), as I found it to be an excellent reminder of hard school can be for children who are different in any way.

Quiet Children in the Classroom: On Helping Not Hurting A real food for thought piece by James C. McCroskey, this article outlines ways in which teachers' efforts to help "quiet children" in the classroom may actually do harm. While his cautions and recommendations for helping "quiet children" may be overly restrictive for the enterprising teacher (i.e., I encourage you to read additional references and explore a more proactive approach than he recommends in many cases), McCroskey's concerns about lumping "quiet children" into one homogeneous group and thoughts about the kinds of diagnostic categories these children may fall into are well worth the read.

Shyer Than Perceived Katie Meyer, summarizes research conducted by Ann Evans, Renata Bzdrya and Andrea Spooner comparing fifth and sixth graders' perceptions of their shyness and self-esteem with the perceptions of their parents and teachers confirming what so many of us already know, that it's not always easy to spot a shy child. But sadly, their findings also suggest that children whose shyness goes unnoticed are more likely to develop a lower self-esteem." This website is a gift. Staffed by, and I quote, "former shy kids, blossoming shy kids and parents helping them along the way," this website is filled with a wealth of information that shy kids, and adults for that matter, can relate to. However, I do take exception with one very important premise of the website to which Shykids devotes an entire page which they entitle "Stop The Lablels."   PLEASE DON'T! It's not the labels that are the problem. It's our interpretation of the labels. For now, please see the discussion on the Tips For "Shaking Your Shyness" page of this website. I will be adding a separate section addressing labels as they apply to shy children as time permits. In all other respects, I think this is a fabulous must visit site.

Shyness and Children's Vocabulary   This research study conducted by Cozier at Cardiff University speaks to the concern frequently brought to me by parents—e.g., "My son's teacher says he can't read, but he reads just fine at home. He's just scared." Accurately assessing academic achievement of shy children is a difficult task as their performance is sometimes compromised by their anxiety. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the abstract for the link to the full article (note--this is a PDF file so my link may not work for you and you will need to go to the article with the above link).   "The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that, nationwide, 20% of students in grades 9-12 experienced bullying," and that's just grades 9 - 12. Managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, this site provides a great place to start learning about bullying and how to manage it in academic settings and beyond.

Teaching Shyness Takes Centre Stage   I found this article on the TeacherNeworkBlog and really wanted to include it as it incorporates so many of the kinds of things that make a difference in a shy child's life. The program, based in London, offers children a safe playful environment where shy children can develop the skills and confidence they need to come out of their shells. Many shy or high functioning autistic spectrum children lack the skills to interact with their peers, skills that can be difficult for them to learn in traditional classroom settings. As the author says, he's a bit "nervous" to describe the program, in part, because it does require a higher staff to student ratio than most educational settings have the resources to provide, and, in part, because over time the school staff "developed their skills and now have the confidence to plan, deliver and evaluate small group drama sessions themselves" and may no longer need him. My hope is that it could become the kind of program that schools with fewer resources might be able to develop with the help of local drama programs in their communities or integrated some highschool drama programs as student projects. More work definitely, but a great learning opportunity for those of you who have the resources to pull it, or something like it, off.

Teaching Students Who Are Shy or Withdrawn This short summary presented by the Kinder Art website offers a convenient reminder of the key points offered by Brophy listed above.

Tips for Teachers: Working with Younger Children Who Are Shy   This site is presented by Barbara and Gregory Markway, authors of Painfully Shy, one of the better books that has been written on shyness. The page I've directed you to includes tips for teachers, but you may want to take a look at some of their other pages as well---particularly their Links page.

Twitter in the Classroom  Ways Teachers Can Help Young Students Overcome Shyness Who would have thought? Enrique Legaspi, a history teacher in Los Angeles, did. He's been incorporating Tweets in his lesson plans as a way to engage students class discussions. While it might not work for all shy students, it seems to help some students find a voice they might not otherwise have had. Check this CNN video and see for yourself.


Disclaimer . . .

This site is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in on this site, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein. This site is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and/or counseling.


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